ca May 1996
While living in Oak Park and working in Chicago in the early 1990s, I became engaged with the story of Richard Nickel. I published two review-essays about a new biography of the man, which are reproduced here and here. What began as a book review swelled into a wide-ranging inquiry into his life, the rise of documentary art photography, the architectural preservation movement, and City of Chicago policy and practice as a regulator.
The result would have been a fine short book if I'd examined any of these topics more deeply; instead, it just grew wider. Bits of this piece ended up in pieces I did sell, but I realized the lengthier version would add little of note to justify its length so I put it aside. However, there are good bits in it, so here—in not quite polished form—it is.
Historic preservation does not often produce men of action of the conventional sort. Thus it was inevitable that Richard Nickel—a 44-year-old architectural photographer and collector of architectural fragments whose work uniform usually consisted of old Army fatigues—came to be seen as preservation’s guerrilla fighter. For some 15 years Nickel scavenged the corpses of Sullivan structures all over town. These scavenging forays often were planned like commando raids. He kept watch night after night, waiting for the right moment to steal upon the premises—not so soon as to seem eager (which would have tipped the wreckers that what they had was valuable) but not so late that the pieces might be destroyed. Using only hand tools and usually working alone, he chiseled, pried, and sawed free pieces that weighed as much as 1,500 pounds. It was testing work made more so by the fact that he often did it at night, amid rubble made slick by winter ice.
In 1972, Nickel clambered after dark into the creaky hulk of the nearly-razed Stock Exchange Building on LaSalle Street. Working alone and at night and in defiance of both common sense and the wrecking firm in charge, Nickel was rummaging in the wreck for a section of cast-iron stair railing when a floor collapsed. Nickel was crushed to death under tons of nonperforming assets. Most partisans praised him after his death as Chicago preservation's white knight; an editorial cartoon published in the Sun-Times upon his death listed him as “killed in action.”
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A martyr to art? An inspired innocent sacrificed to Progress? A vandal with pretensions? Some of the answers may be found in Richard Cahan’s They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture. Neither a formal biography nor formal history, the book might be more accurately described as a personalized history of a local legend.
Born in 1928, Nickel was raised in Stanislawonon, then Logan Park, and finally Park Ridge as his Polish-American parents worked their way up and out of the city. He grew up “happily abnormal” (his phrase), a middling student who daydreamed through a Catholic school education that deformed him in all the usual ways. After a stint in the Army, he enrolled in Chicago’s Institute of Design, courtesy of grateful taxpayers. Photography—a hobby of his father—was the only vocation that had suggested itself by this point to Nickel, and photography figured prominently in the curriculum of the ID, which had been founded in 1937 as Chicago’s “New Bauhaus” by Hungarian expatriate painter-photographer Moholoy-Nagy. On the staff was art photographer Aaron Siskind, who became Nickel’s mentor and friend.
In the early ‘50s Nickel joined other students assigned by Siskind to find and photograph the surviving local buildings designed by the late master architect Louis Sullivan. The architect’s official list of commissions had been destroyed in an office fire. When Nickel first set out with his view camera, 114 Sullivan-designed buildings—office buildings, houses, apartment buildings, shops, small factories, even tombs—were thought to be standing in and around Chicago.
Sullivan was Chicago’s poet of the tall building, who with partner Dankmar Adler, Sullivan designed a half-dozen of the city’s essential buildings, including the Auditorium and what became the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store on State Street. Praised today as the spiritual father of modern U.S. architecture, Sullivan was a creative misfit done in by drink and changing fashions whose reputation had dimmed in the three decades after his death in 1924.
Usually the most a student can hope for out of a class project is that it will change his grade; this one changed Nickel’s life. Nickel devoted himself to the project with an energy and fervor more typical of the convert than the student. By 1957 Nickel had found nine of the missing buildings, and another 23 built projects not previously known to exist.
Nickel’s photographs and measurements often were all that survived of many of these works. From 1925 to 1940 some three dozen downtown buildings were destroyed in a frenzy of overbuilding. (Speculative manias recur in Chicago real estate men the way the shakes recur in malaria victims.) Economic depression—always Chicago’s most effective preservationist—intervened to save, or at least delay the destruction of, the rest. Sullivan’s Mayer warehouse in the south Loop (misidentified in Fall as the Meyer Building) went down; so did the mansion he did for Cyrus McCormick.
In the late 1950s, the disease of dereliction complicated by urban renewal spread to the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of the post-Fire bourgeoisie that Sullivan had dignified with dozens of house designs were being abandoned wholesale. (In one two-and-a-half year stretch, the bulldozers of urban renewal leveled some 6,000 buildings citywide.) Today, notes Cahan, only 21 Sullivan structures still stand in Chicago.
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“Historic preservation” in the 1950s and ‘60s still meant preserving the information about a building by making photos and drawings of a building before it was destroyed. And in the early days, that’s all that Nickel did. But Nickel soon began practicing a sort of proactive archeology, taking home from these dismembered hulks bits and pieces of that were headed for the dump. He took mainly ornament, including terra cotta doo-dads, stone pediments, stenciled friezes, cast metal stair railings, even chunks of balconies.
He took ornament partly because the pieces were usually small enough to fit into his car, and partly because it was in his ornament that Sullivan had most passionately expressed his artistic personality. Through the 1920s at least, developers and the tenants they catered to had a complex social agenda in addition to their economic one. Or rather their social and the economic agendas were linked in ways that brought forces other than profit to bear of design decisions.
In Constructing Chicago, historian Daniel Bluestone argues that turn-of-the-century developers sought to ennoble the new white-collar trades as a calling. Doric columns and ailanthus leaves carved from stone proved the perfect tools to scratch the sense of cultural inferiority that itched at these parvenus. The architects they hired adorned their buildings with decorative materials and motifs borrowed from more respectable realms such as the cathedral and the courthouse. Mumford dismissed these doodads as “ill-chosen souvenirs,” but Paul Fussell speaks for a larger public when he recalls them as pointing to “a world larger than the local and a purpose nobler than the utilitarian.”
The borrowing was not as preposterous as it might have seemed. Other world cities may have begun as ceremonial centers, but it was Business that put Chicago on the map. American 19th century materialism was as fervent a creed as any Old World religion, and Chicagoans worshipped money as devotedly as any god. The skyscraper was the most awesome realization of this creed—America’s new cathedral.
The results may usually have been inferior in strictly architectural terms to the elegantly sleek efficiency so brilliantly displayed in John Root’s Monadnock building. (Mumford rightly praised the Monadnock as a building that expressed “Business, and not the fake religion of business.”) But the public was so impressed that these new temples of commerce became tourist attractions.
By Nickel’s day, developers had come to measure their pretension in terms of size rather than meaning. The mantle of the Chicago school of cost-effective architectural genius was taken up by Mies and his wannabes. After a Crain’s reader suggested that a Chicago with fewer Mieses in it would be a handsomer, happier Chicago, a spokesman for Mies’s successor firm defended the “logic, reason, and discipline” of the master’s buildings. In the hands of any but the master (indeed, often enough in his), logic meant narrow functionality, reason meant cost-efficiency, and discipline meant not letting architectural purpose be swayed by human needs. If Sullivan was a poet of Democracy, Mies was the poet of Bureaucracy. No surprise that his two important large downtown buildings were done for the feds and for IBM.
So the loot piled up, in his parents’ backyard, then in warehouses, and for while even on Navy Pier. More than once a frustrated and exhausted Nickel swore an end to his involvement, as the buildings being pulled down faster and swept away faster than he would pick up the pieces. In a letter to a friend in 1963, a depressed Nickel asked why he was “horsing around moving . . . stones” while everyone else his age was collecting houses and cars and lives. But he never quit for long.
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Nickel’s private obsession meshed with a public cause in 1960. Plans had been announced to tear down Adler and Sullivan’s 17-story Garrick Theater on Randolph between Clark and Dearborn. Built as the Schiller Building in the 1890s, the Garrick was a model for the great “setback” skyscrapers of the World War I era. An office tower set atop an opera theater, the complex was a further elaboration of the large mixed-used building the firm pioneered with the Auditorium on South Michigan.
Buildings no less than people tend to be overpraised in their obituaries, and news of its impending demolition inspired one critic to claim the Garrick to be as important to modern architecture as the Parthenon was to classical building design. It was not. But Nickel’s meticulous photos revealed that the Garrick deserved to be among the initial thirteen structures listed as “primary landmarks” by the city’s first official honor roll of architectural landmarks in 1959, in spite of its having been vandalized for years by its own management.
The fight for the Garrick helped galvanize Chicago preservationists, which meant that the building did more good for preservationists than preservationists were able to do for the building. A plan was put together in 1960 in which the city would buy and restore the property for $5 million; the city foolishly rejected it as too expensive, and the Garrick was replaced by a parking garage.
Architecture wasn’t the only loser. The theater in the Garrick (converted, inevitably, for movie showings) was by all accounts not just gorgeous to look at but acoustically superb. At 1,286 seats, it was the perfect size for many of today’s theater and dance groups. In time the city would agreed to purchase for $5 million the garage that replaced it to make room for a new complex to house—a theater, a new home for the Goodman. Ah, irony.
Nickel joined dozens of other protesters on the sidewalk to picket on behalf of the Garrick, urging a delay in demolition so that a deal to finance its restoration would be worked out. He also undertook a one-man national letter-writing campaign that mobilized critical opinion against its demolition. When its fate became clear, Nickel sent letters to U.S. museums and universities offering them relics of the doomed building for their arts and architecture collections; the enthusiastic response persuaded City Hall to help fund a modest salvage effort, which Nickel was hired to carry out.
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“[The] question ‘Why do they always wreck the finest buildings?’ was one that Nickel asked often,” Cahan writes. “He never received an answer.” Of course, they don’t always wreck the finest buildings; if they did, the Chicago Architecture Foundation would be escorting camera-laden Germans on tours of the Loop’s world-class collection of Burger Kings. (That so many fine skyscrapers are still standing may owe less to preservationist agitation than to the vagaries of the real estate market. Much of the new building in the 1980s went up on sites in the West Loop, along the river, or along North Michigan Avenue rather than the Loop proper, where stood most of the signature 19th century commercial buildings.)
“They” of course are the money men, the developers and bankers and property managers who move and shake. They are widely seen to be not only ignorant but malicious. The opinion that lurks behind the words of Nickel’s question—that the havoc developers wreak is knowing, that they wreck the finest buildings because they are the finest buildings—is widespread among preservationists. The charge is plausible, if unproven. No one who knows the breed underestimates the Oedipal rages that drive them to build bigger if not better than their forebears.
Nonetheless, many of our developers are cultivated men as developers go, meaning they feel bad when they tear down perfectly useful buildings. They are people of sophistication in their private lives, even of taste, and they will explain plaintively that they take no pleasure in expanding the market on behalf of the plate glass oligopoly at the expense of Art. Rather than arrogance, the sin they confess to is excessive humility, for they have humbled themselves as servants of the Market.
There is enough truth in this that a well-mannered guest will not laugh out loud when they hear it—barely. Yes, downtown building lots often become more valuable than the structures that stand on them, but usually because they are driven up in value by a speculative market in real estate that developers work furiously to exploit.
But say not that it is greed that puts a developer beyond the pale. Many a smug preservationist happily plays the same game with his house that a developer plays with Loop lots. Nor is each a stranger to the other because they dispute what makes this building finer than that building, the way that critics might disagree about whether the Amoco Building or the Sears Tower is the better local example of Corporate Neo-Giganticism.
No, developers and preservationists do not share notions of what constitutes a building, period. Nickel once complained to Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill about that firm’s designs for the Home Federal Savings and Loan, saying that the only advantage the 1960s office building had over its predecessor was mechanical improvements such as air-conditioning and automatic elevators. To developers and their tenants, that “only” is crucial. To them, a building is merely the box in which is packaged the mechanical systems that are essential for efficient work.
Charles Atwood’s Reliance Building at State and Washington is today generally praised as a forerunner of the International Style glass box of the 1950s and ‘60s. But in the essential AIA Guide to Chicago, critic Anders Nereim notes that when it was new it was praised in the trade press because its steel frame made for speedy and efficient construction and because its terra cotta cladding was thought to be self-cleaning. Similarly, the ranks of bay windows on Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange livened its facade—the subject of one of Nickel’s most reproduced photographs—were not put there to entrance critics but to increase light and rentable floor area.
Nickel was not the first or last preservationist who found it hard to accept the fact that economics not only destroys great buildings but help create them to begin with. The new wonders erected in the Loop owed to the urgent desire by developers to squeeze more profit out of expensive lots by building higher, by replacing costly and hard-to-main stone ornament, by opening the buildings to natural light so as to increase the rents in interior offices. As critic Ada Louise Huxtable has noted, engineering allied with greed somehow produced art. He opts for the romantic notion of the architect as hero, and ignores the degree to which developers shaped the new aesthetic. The fact that architects occasionally give bankers and developers better buildings than either deserves is something to be grateful for, but a sensible person learns to never expect it.
Many of the architectural innovations in the commercial building in Chicago that later generations came to treasure arose from the need to equip it with the very latest in mechanical improvements. In the pre-electric 1890s, developers faced the problem of providing the tall office building with higher quality natural light. In The Rookery on LaSalle Street (recently refurbished to its former glories), Burnham & Root illuminated every office in the 11-story block by means of a gorgeous interior light court that worked so efficiently that interior offices commanded the same rents as those with views of the streets.
As the term pertains to Chicago commercial buildings of the late 19th century, then, “old” quickly came to mean “technologically outmoded.” William LeBaron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building was by some reckonings the nation’s first true skyscraper; when this icon of engineering invention was progressed into rubble in 1931 to make room for Alfred Shaw’s Field Building on Adams between Clark and LaSalle, it was but 44 years old.
Preservation practice largely respects this dichotomy of interest. The preservationists canon requires the obsessively correct restoration of external details but largely leaves the working parts of a building (save usually the elevator lobbies) utterly vulnerable to emendation. Good thing too; changing such interiors is usually essential to maintaining a building’s commercial viability.
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Nickel was a prominent preservationist when he died, but his role in the movement is hard to describe. As perhaps its most romantic figure, he looms large in its annals but he was not the founder of the architectural preservation movement in Illinois. While he also inspired several of his friends and colleagues, such as architect John Vinci and landmarks advocate Timothy Samuelson, who went on to form the nucleus of today’s preservation establishment in Chicago, Nickel himself could not organize groups of people effectively. He was impatient with the details of organizations and stiff-backed about political compromise. “I work best alone,” he wrote in 1968, “and “I don’t care one hoot about administration and operation.” He shunned the dull work of building legal fences around Chicago’s good buildings, preferring to wait until a favorite was threatened with the ball. Like any good romantic, Nickel knew that a knight errant without a damsel in distress is just a busybody on a horse.
As a result Nickel did not save even one building. At one point late in his career, Nickel chastised himself and like-minded preservationists who had to be content to “scramble like idiots for the pieces” of landmark buildings as they came tumbling down. Cahan reminds us what obstacles confronted Nickel and Co. in the Chicago of the 1950s and ‘60s. Forty years ago the city’s legendary venality, ignorance, provinciality, and corruption were still largely immune to grand juries, uplifting editorialists, and tourism-and-convention marketers. Official Chicago still had an unshakable faith in what New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp recently called “the industrial city’s endless capacity to renew itself.” Progress was what Chicago stood for, and progress meant knocking down buildings so bigger ones could be built in their place.
In his 1992 book, The 100 Mile City, architect/critic Deyan Sudjic noted how the attitude of any city toward its past depends on its attitude toward its prospects. For decades it was not doubted that Chicago’s downtown buildings would continue to get bigger if not better. There were booms and busts, sure, but that is inescapable in any speculative market. The old faith seemed revived when the Prudential went up in 1952; it was the first big downtown office building since the 1930s. That postwar era had its masterpieces—the Inland Steel building comes to mind—but they were far fewer and less lovable that what they replaced.
Buildings of historical, rather than architectural importance had been the object of philanthropic and (later) government attention for decades. (Lincoln’s house in Springfield, for example, was purchased by the State of Illinois way back in 1887.) Cahan dates the founding of the movement to preserve Illinois’ architecturally significant buildings to 1955. That’s when Thomas Stauffer, a Hyde Park college instructor and architecture buff, drafted the ordinance calling for the creation of a city landmarks commission—the first of its kind in Illinois. In 1957, thanks to Ald. Leon Despres, Chicago’s champion of the lost cause, the Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks was established.
Both moves were animated by crisis, as reforms tend to be. In 1957, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright himself had to come to town to bully the Chicago Theological Seminary out of their plan to tear down his Robie house in Hyde Park. By consensus one of the century’s most important house designs, the Robie had been judged less important than the dormitory for apprentice bishops planned for that site.
The Times’ Herbert Muschamp is slightly more accurate when he describes preservation as a grassroots movement, insofar as it did not, like so many architectural fads, emerge from the brow of either the dealmeisters, the campuses, or the mainstream professionals. (Nor would it; the specialty of preservation architecture stands in low esteem among practicing architects, as it requires them to put their skills in service to another man’s vanity.) Still, preservationists are lumbered with reputations as eggheads, obstructionists, fuddy-duddies, effetes, people who keep reminding the rest of us to eat our vegetables.
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Muschamp calls the preservation movement “the most influential force toward a civilized urbanism in the past half century.” “Civilized” is a term the fastidious may quibble with. The historic district is the museum’s reconstructed “period room” on a civic scale that allows a controlled excursion into a cleaned-up past that our forefathers, who knew it rather more intimately, couldn’t wait to escape.
Preserved period structures offer the same rewards to the anxious urbanite of the 1990s that the fabled White City of the World Columbian Exposition offered to her counterpart in the 1890s—an idealized cityscape intended to impress an audience of middle-class tourists, the recreation of the American city by superior taste.
Why then did the preservation movement not emerge until the ‘60s rather than in, oh, the ‘20s? Lots of reasons. Because it is such a young city, it was not until the 1950s that Chicago had a Past. Also, it took until then for Chicago’s claim to be inventing a new city, even a new civilization, to be exposed.
In specifically architectural terms there was a coming to terms with the city’s own traditions. Before then, the traditions that Chicago architects) had so gleefully trashed belonged to other people. By the 1950s the Chicago School gave it a tradition of its own worth cherishing. It may be argued that the first generations of Chicago builders built to last only because they did not foresee the fast pace of technological change, and thus of building obsolescence. Whatever the reason, the best of their projects are so rich in materials and craftsmanship that walking into some Loop lobbies like walking into Tut’s tomb.
The city’s first landmarks commission was a thing of all mouth and no teeth, alas, having only advisory powers. The Columbus Memorial Building (described by David Lowe in Lost Chicago as "a flamboyant relic of the Exposition years") was rubbled in 1959. Holabird & Roche’s Republic went down in 1961, a loss made vexing to Nickel by the fact that it, unlike the Garrick, still was in good enough shape to have turned a profit had the owners wanted it to. It was followed by Cobb’s Federal Building in 1965.
The din of falling brick finally woke up a slumbering City Council, and in 1968 Chicago gave itself a proper landmarks preservation law. Under the new law, official listing as a landmark by the commission requires that anyone wanting to tear it down submit the plan to hearing; only the City Council itself can prohibit demolition, by endorsing the commission’s recommendations. Even if the council ultimately votes against listing, the process at least delays demolition. The process gives preservationists time to mount shaming publicity campaigns on a building’s behalf that can sometimes scare off jittery developers.
Naturally, the toughest law is useless if the authorities refuse to apply it. Dozens of lesser but still good buildings have come down since the city’s first real landmark law was passed, such as Grand Central Station (in 1971), the Michigan Square Building (in 1973), William LeBaron Jenney’s Fair Store—not all great architecture, nor all from the Chicago School, but all great Chicago buildings.
The fact is that pace of destruction slowed. this may be due as much to changed awareness and changed economics of buildings as to the law. If the loss of such buildings as the Garrick was a tragedy, more recent preservation defeats such as the clearing of the 1872 McCarthy Building and the Unity building from Block 37 have been closer to farce. A Chicago developer who can’t make money tearing down historic buildings ought to turn in his hard hat as a traitor to his tradition.
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Of the many fights that Chicago preservationists have fought and lost (or never fought at all) the failed fight to save Sullivan’s Stock Exchange was perhaps the most emotional. Every once in a while someone will propose nailing a plaque memorializing Sullivan, or the building, or Nickel, on the spot where it used to stand.
The episode is amply detailed in Fall. The monument was replaced by a generic West Loop glass box at 30 N. LaSalle. Inland Architect derided the new building as “shoddy, cheap and pretentious.” Apparently shoddy, cheap and pretentious was exactly what its tenants wanted, the white-collar trades by 1972 having long ceased to suffer much anxiety on the score of their respectability.
Some good did come out of the Stock Exchange fiasco. In a politically driven system of landmark reservation, the brutal death of important buildings serves the larger purpose of awakening public opinion in support of preservation. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the influential advocacy organization, was founded in part out of frustration with the failures of elected bodies to represent what the LPIC saw as the public interest in the Stock Exchange affair.
At the time, the City Council’s failure to endorse the recommendation of the city’s landmarks commission to designate the Stock Exchange an official landmark convinced Nickel and a thousand like-minded preservationists that their elected representatives do not speak for, indeed can barely perceive the larger public interest in such matters.
Nickel ascribed the reluctance of the City Council first to adopt and later to use landmarks law to its endemic bozo-ness, but in fact it was due to its being a too perfectly representative political body. Then as now the aldermanic culture is entrepreneurial, materialist (these are not the words the state’s attorney would use) and Philistine. In this the members resemble the city’s real estate deal-makers (and most of its residents) much more closely than its preservationists.
As policy-makers for the corporate city, aldermen have a strong institutional interest in the short-term expansion of the tax base. Gaudy new buildings are usually bigger, and thus generate more tax money than old ones do for city operations (if seldom as much more tax money as they ought, due to fiddling with assessments). Also, a council vote to buy out the developers of the Garrick ($5 million) or the Stock Exchange ($12 million) would have left them open to charges of padding the pockets of downtown speculators.
More recent councils, however, have learned that an extant stock of fine buildings generates more than tax dollars. Architectural tourism, a staple in world cities since the Greeks toured the pyramids, may have come belatedly to Chicago, but City Hall has embraced it enthusiastically. Today, with the Stockyards closed and the gangsters having lost their romance, Chicago is Architecture to the cultivated traveler.
Preservation law appropriately allows for a varied definition of public interest, but often that only confuses things more. An aldermen who voted against official landmark status for the Stock Exchange in 1970 described his responsibility as weighing “aesthetic values” against the total cost of buying and fix up the building and decided that that cost outweighed its “historic value and architectural originality.” Aesthetic value, architectural originality, and historic value are different things. Unfortunately the law offers no formula by which policymakers might attach a dollar value to any of them, or any way of ranking their relative importance according to any other scale of values.
With calculations of the public interest so complex, it is no surprise that so many aldermen are eager to leave the heavy math to the mayor. In Chicago a mayor’s advocacy has usually been worth more than the law. (Or, in such cases as the old central library, a mayor’s wife’s advocacy.) For 28 of the 40 years of the preservationist era in Chicago the mayor on the fifth floor has been a Daley. If Richard J. grasped that civilizations (as Phillip Johnson put it) are remembered by the buildings they erect, Richard M. understands that they also are remembered for those they tear down.
That is not the only way in which the Daley in City Hall today is different from the one Nickel knew. Daley pere only listened to the opinions of architectural experts. But Daley fils has his own opinions on architectural disputes. For example, Daley opposed the proposed atrium addition to the John Hancock Center in 1988 that was widely denounced by taste-makers who found the idea as absurd as, say, building a glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. His Honor’s tastes are not venturesome, but then the last time we had a top public official with adventuresome tastes in buildings we got the Thompson Center.
The loss of the Garrick and the Stock Exchange put a stain of the Daley family escutcheon that the eldest son is eager to cleanse. The present Daley administration has been especially keen on saving Burnham & Root’s Reliance Building at State and Washington. After nearly being leveled in the 1960s, the Reliance was named a Chicago landmark in 1975, and a national landmark two years later. Nickel wrote to a colleague at the time of the crisis 30 years ago that twice the effort made to save the Garrick ought to go to protect the Reliance. ”A real noise should be made,” he said.
The Reliance didn’t die then, but it was not at all well. Like so many of its predecessors it was being demolished one small step at a time. Defaced on the outside (its cornice was ripped off) and stripped of fittings on the inside, it slipped past shabby to forlorn. Richard J. Daley had arranged for city agencies to rent floors to generate income, but when he died the deal died with him. A 1988 plan to restore it for use by not-for-profits, who were otherwise being priced out of the loop, was proposed but could not be financed. A plan to fix up the building as the national headquarters for the American Field Service fell through in mid-1992.
After the AFS deal soured, the present Daley administration spent $1.2 million to acquire the building and another $500,000 to study the cost of renovating it as part of the North Loop redevelopment project. In mid-1993 the city asked for bids to redevelop the building. The winner was the Baldwin Development Co. which had resurrected The Rookery to general applause. The first phase called for the cleanup of the exterior and restoration of the ground floor as retail space, for which the City Council in the fall of 1994 approved $6.5 million in North Loop redevelopment funds.
The restoration of the upper floors to office space would await further funding, and an upturn in the Loop office lease market. not long ago it was assumed that smaller 19th century buildings had zero future as office space. Its tiny 4,000-square foot floor plate made it unattractive to conventional office tenants. But decentralization, downsizing, and computers mean that offices have fewer people in them. Attempts to lease the Sears Tower, for example, have been frustrated because of that building’s hangar-like spaces. The older, smaller buildings of the last century are suddenly state-of-the-art again, assuming they are refitted with up-to-date communications infrastructure. [The Reliance was resurrected in full, being converted in the latter 1990s into a hip hotel with a more than decent restaurant in the ground floor named after architect Charles Atwood.]
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While the city’s official landmarks list today includes more than 100 structures (of which fewer than two dozen are tall commercial buildings) many more buildings than that remain unlisted and at risk. These buildings are well-enough designed to make their loss regrettable and propitiously enough sited to make it inevitable.
The issues at stake in such cases are ill defined, hard to measure, and thus endlessly disputable. Because the power to decide landmark status is invested with the city’s elected officials, calculations of the public interest must be made politically. This done by balancing the interests among the parties to a deal, rather than balancing the attributes of the building itself.
Costonis that a big city’s built environment functions variously as a visual commons, a carrier of cultural genes, a register of social values. Kevin Lynch, the MIT urbanologist, has made a similar point when he described cities as symbolic systems essential for “the retention of group history and ideals.”
Yes, but whose culture? Whose social values? Which group’s history? The significance of Loop landmarks varies depending on whether you are the great-grandchild of the men who financed them, who built them, who kept offices in them, or who cleaned them. Ald. John Steele called the city’s investment in the Reliance (made from funds generated by a Loop tax increment financing district) a “black hole.” “What about the neighborhoods?” Steele reportedly complained.
The preservationists’ stock answer—that the Loop is every Chicagoan’s neighborhood—is truer for some Chicagoans than others. Yale’s Vincent Scully has described preservation the only mass popular movement to affect architecture in this century, but then anything can look like a mass movement if you and all your friends believe in it. From the first, preservation’s politically potent public has been centered in the city’s educated bourgeoisie. Membership in the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the state’s largest private advocacy group, is only about 2,000 statewide.
A taste for the authentic, variously defined, is a barometer of one’s rise in class. In his book, How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand reminds us that it is the rich who usually have the time, taste, and attitude to develop taste in matters of architecture. (So do those who live like the rich, such as tenured academics.) He might have added that only the well-off are so accustomed to new things that they regard old things as novel—or, in the case of old buildings, can afford to make them habitable. PLUS note nickel as patron saint not just for love of bldgs but h contempt for Chicago, or rather the city’s culture.
Richard Bennett, then president of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, referred to these sorts of people at a 1970 demolition hearing. Bennett pointed out that airplanes left Chicago every day filled with American tourists bound for Europe in search of the “feel of old cultures.” When those planes came back, the people in them began asking why Chicago’s own monumentsold enough by then to be historical in American terms, and which bore so many family resemblances to their European elderswere being treated so cavalierly.
Not surprisingly, preservation has been described by even friendly observers as a tool to achieve class dominance. Certainly historic district status is used to enforce social exclusion in residential districts. “Save the old” also is a rallying cry for the big-city nostalgist fighting incursions by suburban taste.
Nostalgia for the past has worked its downward through the American social classes along with such other fashions as voting Republican and the romantic affection for the natural; history has become a middle-class consumable. That nostalgia shows up in Disney-fied reconstructions in shopping malls in Orland Park or in the Olde Schaumburg Town Centre, where a middle class displaced variously from the small town and the Chicago neighborhood seek continuity even at the expense of authenticity¾perhaps especially at the expense of authenticity.
Like many preservationists, Nickel was no Regular Guy. His educated taste was that of Chicago’s haute bourgeosie. He dismissed his fellow Chicagoans as “slobs” and excoriated “the bunch of clods and gangsters and twaddlers [who] run this town.” (The town returned the sentiment; when the Chicago City Council passed a resolution in his praise after his death, it listed his name incorrectly.)
If a madman or an architecture critic who’d had one too many at an Athanaeum reception approached the Apparel Center or the Marriott Hotel with a burning torch, only an insurance company executive would so much as spit on it to put it out. But the architectural historian who argues in a general forum that Mies’s Federal Center deserves to be saved over, say, the Wrigley Building is likely to get torched himself.
Which raises a point: Why do people respond the ways they do to buildings? What makes buildings important to them, if they are important? Why are people indifferent to some buildings, and revere others? There are a hundred answers, of course, because buildings affect us in a hundred ways.
Take class. John Buck, a man doomed by his name to be a developer the way a man named Daley is doomed to be a mayor, wants to tear down the McGraw-Hill building that has stood since 1929 at 590 North Michigan Avenue to make room for another upscale shopping bordello. Crain’s columnist David Snyder has mounted the barricades against Buck’s project on grounds that the building contributes to the avenue’s fast-disappearing “special character.“ That character is summed up in the word “gracious,” which is the word that SOAR—the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents—has used in drumming up opposition to the demolition.
Snyder’s argument on behalf of the street’s character is dubious; retail sales, occupancy rates, and lease costs per foot along North Michigan have risen in proportion to the number of its older buildings that have been torn down. The architectural merits of the building are equally in dispute. The indispensable AIA Guide calls the McGraw-Hill an “art-Deco triumph,” and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks agreed when they approved a preliminary listing of the structure on April 5. (Hearings probably will be held in mid-summer.) The Tribune, whose credentials as a guardian of graciousness are even better than Crain’s, dismisses the McGraw-Hill’s “gray bulk” as “nondescript.”]
Alas, what is one man’s stability in symbolic environment is another man’s pointless nostalgia. The familiar gripe that preservationists want to freeze the city in time against the natural march of the Market, of Art, of History is a fairer complaint than many preservationists allow. Landmarks laws codified the polite classes’ dissent against the ideology of Progress. Historic preservation arose at the same time, among many of the same groups, and for many of the same reasons as environmentalism, the civil rights movement, and agitation against the war in Vietnam. In each case people revolted against the corruption of a cherished ideal—Beauty, Nature, Justice, Peace—by a mindlessly destructive materialism and the social system set up to advance it.
Many of the movement’s vanguard—Hyde Park intellectuals or newly risen youngish political radicals like Vinci—shared at least an implicit critique of capitalism. Nickel for example raged in a letter against Chicago’s cultural elite, who “rape the city for private fortunes in order to enjoy private art in the suburbs.”
Just as the liberal consensus on environmentalism, civil rights, and Vietnam is being undone, so is preservation under attack. In May the U.S. House-passed budget resolution called for the elimination of National Register program, which lists architecturally and historically significant properties, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which administers it. Most grievous to preservationism, the proposed budget also axed the 20 percent tax credit now enjoyed by the rehabilitators of listed properties. These savvy salvagers are mostly Establishment non-profits, savvy tourist-oriented developers, and homesteading yups, or people that the Tribune the other day called—in a curious reversion to a slur popular in Nickel’s day—“aesthetes.”
The Republican leadership in the new Congress doesn’t often elbow the propertied classes away from the trough, but preservation’s associations with the cultural left make it suspect. Ideology is less a spur than resentment felt by culturally disenfranchised Main Streeters toward Culture, History, Taste as defined by the liberal urban bourgeoisie. Most of the buildings officially enshrined on the National Register, after all, are the landmarks of the ruling class’s rise, buildings that enshrine its heroes and express its values. (The winners, as they say, get to save the history.) Perhaps is there was a strip mall on the National Register . . . .
Just as the erection of icons in form of public statuary marked the rise of ethnic groups to respectability a century ago, so today does the designation as historic icons of buildings significant to the experience of Chicago’s working classes. Plans are being talked about to save the Eight Regiment Armory on the West Side as a tourism-oriented centerpiece in Chicago’s so-called Black Metropolis.
In the early 1950s, Siskind and his students photographed a Sullivan-designed row houses on the Near South Side. Such rowhouses were, as Sullivan biographer Robert Twombly puts it, a conscious expression of class difference in the Chicago of the 1880s—stripped-down, standardized units to house the standardized human components in the industrial machine that generated the wealth that kept architects like Sullivan busy.
“Stripped down” is a term that has to be understood in the context of the times; there is more architecture in their facade than would be expended in similar housing since. No doubt they were better places to look at than to live in. But as Twombly notes, Sullivan applied one of the symbols of genteel individualism that he applied to their developers’ private homes, houses whose facades were just as misleading about the lives within as the anonymous rowhouses were about the working class.
Nickel presumably thought the flats important because a famous architect designed them, not because unfamous people lived in them. At the same time, he never lost the pugnacious class antagonism of a Polish kid from the Northwest side. For years Nickel could safely assume that he was the only former paratrooper in any gathering of important Chicago preservationists.
Nickel caught the scene with his own camera as Siskind and his students were setting up in front of that South Side rowhouse. Four neighborhood kids, all of them black, looked on. (If an art college assigned such a photography project today, chances are the cameras would be set up to record the kids, not the building.) Cahan describes the kids as “fascinated by the dilapidated building that has captured [Siskind’s] attention.” Perhaps. My guess is that they took the going-on as more evidence of the eternal foolishness of the whites.
The flats were torn down in 1976. Their demise reflected the abandonment of white working class neighborhoods by banks, developers, and workers themselves. Indeed, rather than restore them, a wise city might have left them standing in their shabby state as a memorial to racial and economic change, the way that Coventry left it bombed-out cathedral standing in memory of the World War II blitz.
Class is hardly the only factor that influences the way people perceive buildings. Sex is another. (Do women, I wonder, take the pleasure in Sullivan’s “proud soaring things” that so many men do?) Nickel’s arguments in favor of threatened masterworks seldom went deeper than, “Because it’s right,” or “Because it’s beautiful.” But beauty is a treacherous standard for public policy. Nickel was genuinely shocked when aldermen touring the shuttered theater did not see the beauty that he saw, but saw only stinking plaster and dirt and decay.
Buildings also become beloved when they help people orient themselves physically in confusing urban spaces. Filling this role—the original, unmetaphorized sense of the term “landmark”—does not require that a buildings have exceptional architectural merit, only conspicuousness.
Chicago’s best known landmark of this sort is probably the Water Tower on North Michigan. Finished in 1869, the limestone structure stands where the avenue jogs slightly east at Chicago Avenue. That spot would make any other structure just as conspicuous, of course, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Water Tower is still on it. Cahan notes that the Water Tower survived not merely the Great Fire of 1871 but three attempts to raze it in the years since. Indeed the jog at Chicago Avenue was created during the administration of Mayor Big Bill Thompson to avoid tearing the tower down when the street was widened. More recent separate proposals to build new apartments and an art center on the site were quashed for the same reason.
Why does the Tower thus still occupy some of the most valuable real estate downtown, while the bones of worthy buildings like the Stock Exchange lie moldering in landfills? According to the Official Version as retold by the guidebooks, its significance is social. Three generations of Chicagoans have treasured the tower because it recalls the city’s survival and rebirth after the Great Fire. The Tower thus is an icon of the city’s “I can” spirit, the monument that never was built to that event, appropriated for the purpose by public acclaim.
This makes for a lively brochure. It would be interesting to poll today’s Chicagoans (excepting those who had recently taken Aunt Peggy on a tour) to learn how many of them have even heard of the Great Fire, or are able to guess the age of the Water Tower within five decades of its actual construction. I am inclined to think that the tower says “Chicago” because it is the thing one sees on a visit to the city that is easiest to remember.
Informed opinion tends to cherish buildings it admires, uninformed opinion the ones it loves. The two sensibilities sometimes encompass one building—the John Hancock Center for example—but not often. The Water Tower’s architecture is an exercise in Amusement Park Gothic, and it strikes many an architecture fan as endearingly comic at best. Michigan Avenue’s strolletariat, we may surmise, take it very seriously. They find that its exaggerated proportions, its self-consciously antique stonework, its reference to vaguely recalled European models fairly scream “Architecture.”
Costonis explains that when it comes to making an icon, the formal qualities of a building matter less than the ways it gives people what he calls a “sense of self in a place.” In a standardized, de-placed world, we tend to “honor peculiarity,” to borrow a phrase from Brand. Dumbed down, that sentiment may be expressed as, We remember what sticks out.
Take the Hancock Center. The guidebooks authors recognize the Hancock’s tapering form as an obelisk, and its cross-bracing as a “frankly expressed” bit of engineering. Most passersby, in contrast, perceive the building’s shape only as different from look-like towers, and its cross-bracing as decorative. Like the Water Tower, Big John is remembered because it looks different enough from everything around it that it is unmistakable even to the distracted tourist.
To the knowledgeable local, of course, buildings are troves of public social meaning. Historical events, indeed whole worlds can be evoked by their shapes. The surviving structures of Chicago’s golden age of commercial building are relics of a world both alien and exotic. They can be read like obelisks telling of victories or kings. In a nice phrase, Brand describes preservationist-minded citizens as tourists in place. They travel via the experience of their city’s old skycrapers, to the booming Chicago of the 1880s or the frantic Chicago of the ‘20s.
“Reading” buildings this way requires that we master at least a bit of local lore and some guidebook to architectural history. To most of us, alas, the iconographic language of older structures is as silent as hieroglyphs. Designer John Root's biographer speculates that Egypt reminded Root of Chicago, which also was built on a swamp whose native plant was the wild onion, a "typical compound-umbel plant, like papyrus." Had Root based a Chicago building design on the wild onion he probably would have had to reduce his fee; if prophets are without honor in their home towns, so are plants.
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Historic preservation is often described as a secular religion, and metaphors of martyrdom and redemption came naturally to believers describing Nickel’s death. The Daily News was moved to remember him as ”a civic offering to the altar of greed.” Cahan writes that the crossed beams beneath which his body was found gave the death scene “all the earmarks of a crucifixion.”
The dechurched Nickel seems to have found in architecture the fit object for devotion that religion no longer provided. He once remarked that “enlightenment in the moral realm” is what architecture is all about. Accordingly, he preached the gospel according to Louis, whose temples were being sacrificed to Mammon—a desecration to which Nickel would serve as witness.
Certainly there was more than a bit of the monk in Nickel. He never finished college. When most of his agemates were chasing careers, he was off on cross-country car trips to photograph obscure Sullivan works, often sleeping in his car to cut expenses. Between the ages of 32 and 43 he averaged $3,500 a year and in no year made more than $9,000. Apart from the occasional grant from a sympathetic benefactor in support of his Sullivan research, Nickel supported himself with freelance work as a commercial architectural photographer and teacher. He got along by living with his parents, a dependence that gradually became galling to him.
Like most zealots, Nickel never made quite clear to others why Sullivan’s buildings appealed so powerfully to him. The best he could do was say that in Sullivan’s work he found the heart and mind of a great man. Cahan comes closer, I think, when he quotes Goethe about how each of us resembles the spirit we comprehend. Sullivan and Nickel shared remarkable affinities of character. (In his will, Nickel listed among his “close friends” Kierkegaard, Bruckner, and, of course, Sullivan.)Sullivan’s defiant individualism, alternately heroic and pathetic, seems to have appealed to Nickel as much as his architecture. Both men had a strong misanthropic streak; Sullivan may not have recognized Nickel’s language when the latter denounced modern “crum bum society,” but he would have shared the sentiment.
When Mumford described Sullivan (in his 1951 revision of The Brown Decades) he could have been describing Nickel as a man of “fierce sincerity” whose “willful, capricious, and sometimes grandiloquently mystical” nature betrayed “the psychology of the spoiled child.” Sullivan, like Nickel, was sexually troubled (although Sullivan’s biographers did not make explicit until after Nickel was dead the conflicts that Nickel perhaps divined in the master’s work). Nickel, like Sullivan, could be a difficult man even to his friends. And Nickel, like Sullivan, was an impractical man whose career suffered for his inability to abide Philistines.
Nickel was a good enough architectural photographer that exhibits of his work was shown at the Art Institute even before he died. (Fall contains a gallery on slick paper of 16 black-and-white studies by Nickel, in addition to more than 70 others of and by him that illustrate the text.) Temperament rather than ill training seems to have made conventional success impossible for him. He turned down requests to show his portfolio of photos to important magazines because he “didn’t have the time,” and disdained the soft-core architectural porn that wins a photographer the richest assignments from the trade magazines.
Technically sophisticated and historically invaluable, Nickel’s photos are curiously lacking in personality. The passion about buildings that fairly spills from Nickel’s letters left no stain on his pictures. Cahan at one point describes these photos as documentaries in the tradition of Jacob Riis, insofar as they were meant to alert viewers to the desecration going on around them. But Cahan himself quotes local critics who praise Nickel’s work for its evident lack of propagandizing.
Do these chaste portraits reflect the humility of the acolyte? Perhaps—a faithful servant does not seek self-expression, and Nickel was nothing if not a faithful servant to the architects he admired. Or was it true, as his mentor Siskind suggested after his death, that Nickel simply lacked any aesthetic ideas of his own? Nickel’s imagination had lived so fully through Sullivan that his own development might well have been stunted. A garden planted in too-rich soil is spared having to burrow deep to feed itself, and so develops only shallow roots.
In an ironic twist, Nickel in his later years may have made as much money tearing down Sullivan buildings as he did photographing them. Because of his expertise as a wrecker, he was paid to direct or participate in salvage efforts on behalf of City Hall, museums, and universities. For a few months that ended in 1963, he even was on the city payroll, working for three bucks an hour as a curator of architecture for Chicago’s Municipal Reference Library—surely one of the better bargains struck by Chicago in its long history of payroll padding.
As he neared his 40th birthday Nickel took stock, and mused bitterly about the way he’d let his chances for a conventional career be hijacked by his enthusiasm for Sullivan’s work. If Nickel did not known more about Sullivan’s buildings than any other expert, he certainly knew about more Sullivan buildings than any of them, and as early as 1956 New York publishers commissioned him to prepare a catalog of the master’s works. But his crippling perfectionism stalled his progress, and when he died the catalog (which he had first guessed would take four to five months to complete) was still unfinished.
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In the late 60s, a fortyish Nickel made this fogey’s lament: “By the time the kids with new values grow up, everything good and decent will have been wiped out by the shysters, hucksters, and money grubbers.” He was wrong; by the time those kids grew up, everything good and decent was being marketed by the shysters, hucksters, and money grubbers. Major commercial buildings from the Rookery and the Santa Fe have been refurbished by their owners as moneymaking office buildings. Derelict districts are being restored blocks at a time for the amusement of suburban-bred yups who are fascinated by anything older than their parents. If the boomers trusted no person older than 30, they grew up liking few buildings younger than that.
Chicago no longer celebrates its brutality toward its own past. Were Nickel to rise from his rest in Graceland Cemetery, he would find today’s Chicago a much friendlier place than the one he left. Scholars with plaster dust in their hair are no longer automatically dismissed as oddballs. Restoration is a thriving subcategory of the building trades, and architectural salvage is now a respectable trade carried out in broad daylight.
Tougher preservation laws now provide mechanisms by which the public interest can be inserted into what traditionally have been purely private transactions involving land and buildings to protect cultural heritage (broadly defined) in the same ways that zoning laws protect the public health. The State of Illinois and the City of Chicago administer agencies dedicated to identification and legal protection of buildings of significant architectural, historical, or aesthetic value; those agencies also administer a comprehensive and largely invisible system of federal tax subsidies dating from 1968 that support the purchase and rehabilitation of historic properties of all kinds.
Buildings such as Sullivan’s Auditorium are official city landmarks. Plans were announced last year (1995) to open Wright’s Robie house as a museum. The Charnley House, the mansion designed by Adler and Sullivan on Astor Street, recently found a tenant in the hard-partying Society of Architectural Historians, who, having heard about the Division Street bar scene around the corner, are eager to relocate from Philadelphia.
So all is not vandalism. What was then fit only for the dump is not revered as Art. In the 1970s the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room: was reconstructed at the Art Institute of Chicago under the supervision of architects Vinci & Kenny. The Page Brothers building has been handsomely redone, the Goldblatts department store building rescued from limbo after its rejection as the new main library, the Chicago Theater, and the Oriental gleam again on opening nights. The ultimate act of preservation piety is building an old building again; Burnham & Root's Masonic Temple at Randolph was for a time not only was the tallest building in the world but "one of the handsomest," in the opinion of historian David Lowe, which is why architects Johnson & Burgee imitated it in their 1983 design for 190 S. LaSalle. the AT&T Center, NBC Tower, and 190 South LaSalle also explicitly incorporate elements of the designs of earlier Chicago skyscrapers. The arch that formed entrance to Sullivan’s old Stock Exchange now seen again the windows of the Midwest Stock Exchange that arches over Congress. There are many other examples. Indeed, the arch itself was salvaged and reborn as a high-class garden ornament on the grounds of the Art Institute.
Nickel himself was not saved. Was his a life cut tragically short? Or one that had outlived its usefulness? Well before he and the Stock Exchange helped each other toward immortality, Nicklel had begun to brood about death. In a letter to a friend he seemed to have a foretaste of his own lonely death. “Better to be wiped out totally,” he wrote, “instantly, all alone, no one knowing.” ●
AIA Guide to Chicago, edited by Alice Sinkevitch. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1993
Constructing Chicago by Daniel Bluestone. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1991.
Fragments of Chicago’s Past, edited by Pauline Saliga. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1990
How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand. Viking, New York, 1994
Icons and Aliens: Law, Aesthetics, and Environmental Change by John J. Costonis. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1989
Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work by Robert Twombly. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986
The 100 Mile City by Deyan Sudjic. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1992
They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture by Richard Cahan. Preservation Press, New York, 1994